Wisconsin was well-represented Friday evening in a gala ceremony highlighting the American Cheese Society’s annual cheese contest.
State cheesemakers swept the awards in several categories and one Wisconsin man took home not one but two "Best in Show" awards, just behind two cheese entries from Vermont.
A farmstead cheese called "Winnimere" from Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont was the top winner, with "Bear Hill" from Grafton Village Cheese in Vermont taking second place. But right behind them was Willi Lehner from Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mound.
Though ties are not uncommon in the contest it’s unprecedented for one cheesemaker to tie himself in the Best of Show category. That’s what happened when Lehner had two entries tie for third.
His "Bandaged Cheddar" and "Big Sky Grana," a hard cheese similar to Parmesan that is designed for grating, tied for third place, allowing him to take home two Best of Show ribbons.
He celebrated his win by first going to the podium and yodeling, in line with his Swiss heritage and then shared credit for the exceptional cheese with Cedar Grove Cheese and Hennings Cheese where they were made.
Lehner himself takes charge of the cheese in the "afinage" stage – that’s when cheeses are aged. He built cheese caves to achieve a variety of aging conditions.
He told Wisconsin State Farmer that the marriage of his cave-aging and the excellent cheesemaking of his colleagues were responsible for the winning entries of which he was very proud.
Both are Cheddar-based cheeses. The 10-pound "Bandaged Cheddar" was aged 14 months in Lehner’s cheese vault. The enormous 1,600-square-foot vault took a year to build and was experimental, he said.
The Grana cheese, Lehner explained, is a 35-pound wheel and was aged three years in a slightly warmer and drier environment afforded by one of his caves. It was given six coats of a conventional cheese wrap to slow down the moisture loss, he said, and give it a texture like Parmesan cheese.
FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES
Jerry Heimerl, from Saxon Creamery in Cleveland, said they had entered all their products because they get feedback on them from the contest judges.
This contest included 18 teams of two judges – one is for technical aspects of the product and the second judge is for "aesthetics" – things like the package, the label and the beauty of the product. All that feedback, said Heimerl, helps producers like his family re-evaluate their products.
Judges come from dairy areas like Wisconsin but also from Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, even far-flung countries like Australia.
The contest includes dairy products like yogurt and butter as well as a host of cheese categories.
During the awards ceremony organizers explained that they are always tweaking the categories to make sure there are places for creative cheesemakers and other dairy entrepreneurs to place their products.
The contest welcomes cheeses (and other dairy products) made from the milk of cows, but also that of sheep, goats and buffalo; some products are made from a blend of milk from several species.
The newest category in the contest was fresh cheese curds, a beloved food in Wisconsin, and fittingly three state cheese companies won the category. First place went to Springside Cheese Corp with Arena Cheese taking second place and Carr Valley Cheese rounding out the Wisconsin sweep with a tie for second place.
This was the 30th anniversary of the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) annual convention. It was last held in Madison in 1998.
The ACS was founded in 1983 by a professor at Cornell University as a national grassroots organization for cheese appreciation and for home and farm cheesemaking. He organized the first annual meeting that year with 150 attendees – mostly small-scale and home cheesemakers, retailers, academics and cheese enthusiasts.
The group held its first contest in 1985 and had 30 cheesemakers enter 89 cheeses in seven categories. This year’s contest included a record-breaking 1,794 entries from 257 companies.
The contest has evolved from that first one. This year there were 104 different categories.
The ACS has grown alongside its namesake contest. Membership and competition grew and coalesced around some key issues including the preservation of raw milk cheeses.
In 2000, the Cheese of Choice Coalition was formed by the ACS and Oldways Preservation Trust. A redefined mission statement and expanded committees put the organization on track for explosive growth from 2003-08 as people’s appreciation for local and artisanal food grew.
Membership increased from 776 members in 2003 to more than 1,500 members in 2012. During that same time, competition entries increased from 762 cheeses to 1,711 cheeses to the high-water mark reached in Wisconsin this year.
The cheeses arrive for the contest the Wednesday of the week before the convention and are handled with care by dedicated volunteers. "We handle them like they are your small children," said one organizer.
Each cheese is given a secret code for use during judging and the mountains of data are handled by volunteers as the judging progresses.
Nearly 1,000 people attended this year’s ACS convention. According to organizers the largest group at the annual meeting is made up of cheesemakers but retailers and brokers make up the next largest categories.
The meeting also draws a large number of academics and students, chefs and restaurant professionals, writers and just plain cheese "enthusiasts."